Welcome to Holy Week.
For Christians, this is the most sacred time of the year. Starting on Thursday night, we enter into the Triduum and the paschal mystery of Christ’s journey from suffering and death to resurrection and new life. Our entire faith depends upon that Easter morning empty tomb and the stunned amazement of the disciples who raced each other to get there first.
But we can’t leap ahead to Sunday. We have to sit at table with Jesus on Thursday and let him wash our feet as we learn to do so for others. We have to struggle uncomfortably through Friday’s anguish as his beaten body plods to the cross. We have to wait all day on Saturday in strange emptiness and wonder – what just happened and what comes next?
Only with the retelling of all our well-worn stories of faith on Saturday night’s Easter Vigil do we see how God was preparing for this moment all along. That the whole of history was leading us to Sunday morning’s discovery. That the burial wrappings left behind mean death has been overcome for good. That we are saved from our own sinfulness and offered the gift of life.
I love Holy Week. I’ve loved it since I was a high-schooler who discovered the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (yes, I can admit that) and began to realize that this week meant more than being dragged to church every day for hours at a time. I’ve loved it even more since I plunged into this fascinating world of theology and began to peel back the layers of what these sacred feasts really mean for us today.
But loving it as a parent has been a bit more challenging.
Because here’s the thing I love about Holy Week: entering into it completely. And here’s one thing I’ve learned you never get to do as a parent of a small child: enter into anything completely.
Case in point: our first Holy Week with S. Holy Thursday went beautifully. He watched the foot-washing with great interest and made his way through Mass with his usual jollyness intact. Sure, we pushed it a little past his bedtime, but he was fine. We foolishly thought the rest of Triduum would go as well.
Parenting lesson #758: never get cocky.
Good Friday’s service? F & I still cringe at the memory. If you want the whole sordid tale, read about it here. Suffice it to say, we still joke that how S descended into the tomb with Christ that day. And brought us with him as he refused to sleep a wink that entire night or much of the next day. Turns out there was a double ear infection and a first tooth to blame, but the rookie parents had no clue.
We skipped Easter Vigil.
Parenting lesson #759: don’t be a glutton for punishment.
By Sunday morning, the lad was chipper and charming again, so our bleary-eyed selves stumbled into an Easter Mass with little memory of what day it even was. On the drive home, we finally laughed about the whole ordeal, but I still felt sadness at missing Easter Vigil – my favorite Mass of the year.
Until I remembered parenting lesson #760: everything is only a phase. There would not always be babies and toddlers; there would be other Holy Saturdays to enter fully into the feast.
So this year? Lowered expectations are the mantra. (Plus extra recruits for our team: my parents are thankfully coming into town to celebrate Easter with us.) But to learn to love these feasts as a new parent, I’ve had to readjust the lenses – both theological and maternal – through which I view Holy Week.
For many years to come, I will not have peaceful, reflective moments to myself in church during these beautiful services. I will comfort fussy babies and wrangle wriggly toddlers who want to run into the aisle. Later I will try to distract antsy preschoolers, occupy bored grade-schoolers, and drag disinterested teenagers into church with me. Such is the life of family, the meeting of domestic church and universal church. It’s not pretty or easy, but it’s real and meaningful. It’s where the stuff of faith hits the proverbial fan.
So this year I’m getting creative: how can I celebrate Holy Week outside of church? That’s where my few quiet moments are found these days, so I have to seize them as they come. Here are my (adjusted, realistic) plans for living out this Holy Week. What are yours?
Holy Thursday: bake bread. F & I have wanted to celebrate Holy Thursday with a special meal as a family, to talk with our kids about the first Eucharist and to remember how important time at table was for Jesus’ ministry. So this year, we’ll be celebrating with a special meal and homemade bread. My sights are set high on my mother’s French bread recipe, but my realistic side is buying buttermilk as a back-up to make Irish soda bread (no kneading; ready in half an hour!). Thursday is about simple things – breaking bread and washing feet – that remind us how God works through the everyday. We can celebrate that at home as in church.
Good Friday: pick up that cross. I’m slowly reaching the point in pregnancy where I sigh when I drop things because of the effort it will take to bend down and grab them. So when our pastor spoke about picking up our cross at this weekend’s communal penance service, my first thought was I don’t like to pick up and carry anything these days. Our pastor went on to challenge us – during the examination of conscience that he weaves together with the Stations of the Cross, a lovely Lenten meditation – to consider how we have accepted and carried the crosses we are given in our lives. This language and imagery is not typically part of my spirituality or prayer life, but I listened with new ears this year. Truth be told, I’ve done a lousy job lately carrying the cross of how challenging this pregnancy has been. I whine, I complain, I cry, I mope. I needed the reality check to summon my strength and accept the hardship for the beautiful gift it will bring us in a few short months. So on Good Friday, I’m going to pick up that cross (and all the toys, spoons, books, food and sippy cups that will be thrown to the floor) without complaining. Picking up my cross in things big and small reminds me that I am not alone in my aches and pains, my struggles and sufferings. That’s a perspective probably every parent could use.
Holy Saturday: read stories. At the parish near our family cabin where we’ve spent the last three Easters, the pastor steps outside to the lighted fire where Easter Vigil begins and makes his way through the crowd with excitement and wide eyes. “This is our night for telling stories,” he begins. “This is the night for remembering who we are.” As I pack for the cabin this week, I’m going to make sure to bring all of S’s favorite books – the stories that F and I grow tired of reading day after day, night after night. The way he loves those stories that are becoming his favorites, that he’s beginning to memorize, that he points to with glee as he recognizes words, remind me that I should embrace the ancient stories of Scripture we hear on Saturday in the same way. With wonder, with delight, with recognition of my story within theirs. On Saturday, I’m going to make extra time to read stories with S – all his favorites, without sighing or trying to hide Goodnight Moon under the pillow when I want to read something new. I’m going to remember how important stories are to me, to S, to all of us, and be grateful for the gift of stories in our lives.
Easter Sunday: FEAST. Of course we’ll make the big Easter meal to celebrate. I’m already dreaming of pie and sweets. But I want to feast for the entire Easter season (which only begins on Sunday and lasts for seven weeks till Pentecost). Lest I gain 50 extra pregnancy pounds, I’m planning to feast differently. I want to feast on enjoying the Right Now with this little boy before me. Come August, both our worlds will be forever changed when his sibling arrives. I was thinking yesterday that I can’t wait for the moments when I’ll be able to gaze at the beauty of a newborn face and drink in those tiny little features, so sweet and new. I suddenly realized that I rarely take the time to simply gaze at S these days – to watch his face, his movemnts, his eyes – as I so often did when he was a baby. So this Easter, I am going to let myself feast on him: to take deliberate time each day to put down what I’m doing and just watch him. To find a small moment each day when I can turn from my plan (check email, fold laundry, start dinner) and join him in the game he asks me to play. To pull out the camera and record the life of S as it is today, during his last months as our only child. To feast on the gift he has been in our lives and to look ahead with even greater joy to the feasts that will celebrate the arrival of our new baby. Feasting is important for families.
What are your plans for celebrating Holy Week and Easter in your family?
UPDATED: For a beautiful reflection on seeing Holy Week anew through the eyes of a mother who can’t make it to church, check out this article from U.S. Catholic.
Also, Creighton University’s campus ministry has some great resources available online for preparing for the Triduum services – perfect for any parent stuck at home during the liturgies (or who find that they missed most of it anyway, pacing the back of church instead of participating): Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.